Trouble with Comics

Jack Kirby’s Spirit World

Written by Jack Kirby, Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman

Art by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer

DC Comics $39.99 USD

It’s true; the majority of Jack Kirby’s significant work is now in print, enough to treasure and learn from and make an educated evaluation of a career. But the man was about the most prolific cartoonist in the history of the industry, and there are still some things worth checking out. Just out of the reprint pipeline is Spirit World, a fairly lavish hardcover collecting the sole issue of a halfhearted attempt by DC comics in the early ’70s to explore the magazine market that was beginning to take market share away from them, with college-age consumers moving from comics to things like National Lampoon and Creepy

A visionary in more ways than one, if not a particularly good businessman, Kirby saw the future, or a possible future, and got DC to sign off on his idea of a whole new line of magazines targeting this young adult demographic, but DC not only limited the line to a couple magazines, they cut the format from glossy color to black-and-white newsprint, and only ended up printing one issue of Spirit World and In the Days of the Mob before calling it quits. It wouldn’t be fair to say, “cutting their losses”, because they canceled both titles before sales figures were even in, and made little attempt to push the unconventional product through their usual distribution channels.

In the Days of the Mob was Kirby’s return to crime comics, and one would expect that will be collected before long, but Spirit World tells stories of the occult, all introduced by one bearded paranormal researcher Dr. Alden Maas. It’s a framing device not unlike Rod Serling’s Night Gallery or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a reassuring presence tying the disparate, done-in-one supernatural stories together. 

The first and only issue looks quite a bit like a Warren publication, with a painted cover (Neal Adams was called in to redo Kirby’s effort, another sign of no confidence in the King) and hysterical Table of Contents. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the issue wasn’t originally published with indigo ink in place of black the way it is here. It sets it slightly apart from most comics; not a brilliant choice but not a bad one. The first story, “The President Must Die!” involves precognition (oddly and helpfully, the Table of Contents lists the story title on the left and the theme on the right), with an anguished woman making predictions she has trouble getting people to believe. It’s a decent setup, with nice washes on Kirby’s art, but it’s too short and resolves unsatisfactorily, and the brevity seems to prevent Kirby from taking chances on the storytelling, relying on simple grids, although it should be noted the first page of the story is an awkward fumetti starring assistant editor Steve Sherman’s mother as a woman who displays panic in a sedan by cradling her head in her hands.

"House of Horror!" has a much more effective, unsettling collage splash page, and it’s the one story that really gives Dr. Maas an active role, although in the typical, "spend a night in a supposedly haunted house to prove it’s bunk" scenario. Kirby provides some fairly spooky, shadowy figures and unusual textures (a ghost’s encrusted mallet, a seething blob of demonic goo), but even in this more restrained, nothing jumping out of the panel style, Kirby seems by and large to be too much of a dynamic, in-your-face artist to effectively sell supernatural stories. There’s just not enough shadow and suggestion here to create mood or make the reader fill in the blanks from the depths of their subconscious fears, though it’s certainly attractive work.

"Children of the Flaming Wheel" is a silly but charming fumetti with a pretty Native American woman in a vinyl singlet attempting to impart the wisdom of the ancients to a guy with a mustache. It’s probably no worse an attempt by a middle-aged publishing veteran to pander to the hippie market than a lot of what was on the stands at the time.

"The Screaming Woman" is a better effort, though also pandering, a story of reincarnation that finds Kirby in the rare position of accentuating cleavage and side-boob shots of a young woman who is possessed by or the reincarnation of a Spanish peasant who lived hundreds of years before her. It doesn’t feel like Kirby is exactly in his element, but it does represent some of his sexiest depictions of women.

"Spirit of Vengeance" is a text story written by Evanier and Sherman, an okay two page filler that would’t have passed muster for most fiction magazines but did the job for a glorified comic book. Then we have a nice-looking but ineffectual Kirby comics bio of Nostradamus to end his contribution to the issue, followed by a one page Sergio Aragones gag strip ported over from stuff he was doing at the time for DC books like House of Mystery and Plop!

That’s the entirety of Spirit World as published, but the collection then features two pages of explanatory material by Evanier, followed by the remaining four stories prepared for the aborted second issue, which were subsequently published in the DC books, Weird Mystery Tales and Dark Mansion. These are in normal black-and-white.

"Horoscope Phenomenon or Witch Queen of Ancient Sumeria" is rather inert nonsense based on Kirby drawing zodiac-derived characters, but features some of the strongest art in the book, starring a sea witch who’s all swirly metallic surface—think Karnilla the Norse Queen with fins and, for some reason, a telephone she lifts out of the brine. 

Another dull Dr. Maas intro needlessly delays the awesome “Toxl the World Killer”, an emphatic but confused ecology parable that thankfully features plenty of scenes of rough barbarians and their dancing girl entourage beating up on callow, sophisticated polluters and exploiters. Is it irony that the hero ends up destroying everything when he tries to stop the polluters, and his name is Toxl? I doubt Kirby thought about it for long, so why should we?

"The Burners" feels like Kirby read and article, or someone suggested, something about spontaneous combustion, and Kirby did a little research and then knocked out a story about it. If the book was called Gyro World, he could probably have done a similarly attractive, pointless story about a Greek family cooking lamb on a spit, and it would have been about as close to his own personal themes and interests. One could call it professional work based only on the visual presentation; there’s no real story here.

We finish up with “The Psychic Bloodhound”, which is at least a story, and not a bad one, about a psychic frequently called upon by the police. A loose cannon cop calls the psychic in to help find a kidnapper before he kills a girl, and aside from the kidnapper’s Central Casting Brooklyn dialect (“Dis goil will be pushin’ up da daisies!” type stuff), it actually has more suspense to it than most of the other stories.

It’s a Kirby Kuriosity, a long-awaited look at a book fabled for being one of many things DC screwed Kirby over on. To be fair, we will never know what might have resulted had DC been fully supportive of the title in terms of funding Kirby’s production ideas, or letting him have a few issues to settle in to something rather new to a veteran cartoonist who had spent decades producing comics, not magazines. But the truncated results here suggest that, while Kirby could still produce stunning images and an interesting idea or two, whatever the genre, he was not well suited to the project or at least not quite sure what to do right out of the gate.

As for the production, unlike the various Kirby Omnibuses of the past several years, this one is on thicker, nicer paper, not newsprint. There are some odd design choices (hot pink end papers but a rust colored title page don’t really go together, and the use of intentionally grainy b&w extracts from panels cheapens the presentation. It’s still a pretty nice book, but since it only adds up to about three comics, $40 is too much, and in all honesty DC should have lumped this in with In the Days of the Mob and the abortive Soul Love romance comic material, for the same price. Find it on sale or used.

—Christopher Allen